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A Gift from the Grave

Little known fact--I read the local newspaper daily. And, I read the obituaries all the time. I am in the process of writing my own obituary. No, I am not in thrall of death and dying, I am actually far more interested in living and the stories of peoples' lives.

In November, I discovered in the obituaries that one of Natalie's doctors passed away in Phoenix. He was 64. Dr. Robert J. Wood. He was a world famous pediatric cranial facial surgeon who spent most of his career in the Twin Cities. He performed life saving plastic surgery on Natalie multiple times when she was being treated for cancer as an infant. He met us at the lowest and most desperate times in our lives.

I always got the impression that Dr. Wood was a tough guy and not necessarily everyone's favorite. I always liked him, and I always got along well with him, but my instincts told me not everyone felt the same way.

The last time I saw Dr. Wood was at Jerry's grocery store in Edina nineteen years ago. Low and behold I found out he lived not too far from my house. He asked about Natalie, of course. I think I mentioned that we threw her a big birthday party for her first birthday (it was no small miracle that she made it to her first birthday). He said--and you didn't invite me? I said I thought you were such a tough guy, you wouldn't come. And that is what I thought. How wrong I was but didn't know it at the time.

The memorial service for Dr. Wood was this past week, on a bitter cold Sunday in January at the St. Paul Hotel. I knew when I saw his obituary that I would be there and marked my calendar. Through the obituary, I found out that he had a daughter who was also a doctor and a son. To the service I brought them a card. I told them how much their father meant to my life and to Natalie. I told them that he saved her life, and that he is a hero to me. When I got to the ballroom where the service was taking place, I saw a young woman and man who looked like they must be his children greeting visitors. I went up to the daughter, introduced myself and told her how much her father meant to me. She was in tears, and so was I. She asked if she could hug me. Yes.

That was just the start of it. The room was full. There were lovely printed programs, a slideshow set to music, speeches, prayers and laughter. Dr. Wood was not the tough guy I had imagined. He was a brilliant person in so many more ways. There were grade school friends of his talking about their history and shenanigans together. There were colleagues retelling amazing stories of his superior achievements in his field. His brother spoke of his love of travel, cooking, boating, hunting, fishing, love of WW 1 poetry, medicine... reminding everyone just how much his life meant. His daughter spoke of advice she had gotten from him growing up--set your sights high--and then go up. Do one better than you think you can.

As I looked around the room I saw doctors, nurses, former patients, family and friends. His life was well lived. His life made a difference. I always thought of him as the surgeon who gave children faces (his specialty). He travelled the world doing it, and yet he was so much more than that. It took my sitting in that room for me to come to the realization that there might be a lot of other things that I am wrong about.

When the service ended, there was a dessert and wine reception. Who knew that Dr. Wood loved desserts so much? As I waited for my car in the hotel lobby, there was a woman with tears in her eyes--leaving the service too. The attendant asked if we were there for the service. I began regaling the attendant with stories of how wonderful Dr. Wood was. This woman told me she was his high school girlfriend. She told me that he died of a glioblastoma diagnosed in the summer--and months later, he was gone. She hugged me too.

I've been thinking about this a lot since Sunday. I am asking myself whether what I think is true or just my way of connecting the dots to makes sense of the world. I am also contemplating Dr. Wood's advice to his daughter, Dr. Laurel Wood. Set your sights high--and go one better. A gift from the grave.

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Jill Hendrickson
Jill Hendrickson
Jan 28, 2022

Thank you for sharing your experience so beautifully.


Amy Jarrard
Amy Jarrard
Jan 27, 2022

Good for you for going to the service. A lot of people would have skipped it or just sent a card. When you're grieving someone, like his family was, you remember who shows up. And I'm so glad you told them what and how much he meant to you. I learned quite a few amazing things about my Mom (who was a saint before she died) that I never knew from the people who showed up. It matters. A lot.

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